In a Feb 16th essay in The New York Times, Ross Douthat writes on how the “Catholic moment”, but which he means a time when Roman Catholic thought still had traction in American politics and society, is passing with the incumbency of the current pontiff. Whereas his predecessor was widely revered and mourned, even by secular news media, Benedict’s passing will be marked by “sourness and shrugs”. This waning of influence is unfortunate, Douthat writes, since Catholic thought has an egalitarian idea of the common good at its heart, but it is not surprising.
“The collapse in the church’s reputation has coincided with a substantial loss of Catholic influence in American political debates. Whereas eight years ago, a Catholic view of economics and culture represented a center that both parties hoped to claim, today’s Republicans are more likely to channel Ayn Rand than Thomas Aquinas, and a strident social liberalism holds the whip hand in the Democratic Party.
Indeed, between Mitt Romney’s comments about the mooching 47 percent and the White House’s cynical decision to energize its base by picking fights over abortion and contraception, both parties spent 2012 effectively running against Catholic ideas about the common good.”
Douthat concludes that this decline, while understandable, is also the result of the rejection of ideas of the comon good by the elites themselves:
“The recent turn away from Catholic ideas has also been furthered by a political class that never particularly cared for them in the first place. Even in a more unchurched America, a synthesis of social conservatism and more egalitarian-minded economic policies could have a great deal of mass appeal. But our elites seem mostly relieved to stop paying lip service to the Catholic synthesis: professional Republicans are more libertarian than their constituents, professional Democrats are more secular than their party’s rank-and-file, and professional centrists get their encyclicals from Michael Bloomberg rather than the Vatican.
Canadian and European readers of this blog will find it odd that anyone could yearn for the domination of a modern society by church fostered ideas, but there is a difference between theocracy and a reasonable consensus on ideas of human value, dignity, and mutual obligation. I think Douthat is right to note the moral and intellectual vacuum that Catholicism’s demise is creating. The decades ahead will be challenging ones for Christians, both capital C and, like me, small c Catholics, who wish to advocate something other than the pious individualism that passes for much of contemporary Protestantism.